An international team of researchers observe roaming molecular fragments in real time

Joel Bowman and graduate alum Chen Qu are among the scholars who contributed to a recent Science paper reporting on the observation of a chemical reaction at the atomic level in real time

Although scientists have become adept at observing the results of chemical reactions, observing the intermediate steps of reactions in real time, including the path the atoms and molecules involved travel, has been much more challenging. For example, it has been known for years that one of the possible pathways that the molecules that make up formaldehyde can take as they fall apart is one in which they first partially dissociate to form radical products, and subsequently, undergo intermolecular abstraction and complete dissociation into nonradical products. This process is called “roaming,” and until recently, it has only been observed indirectly. This new Science paper addresses this disparity, discussing the direct observation of the roaming reaction pathway of the photodissociation of formaldehyde using a femtosecond Coulomb explosion imaging (CEI) apparatus at the Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre of INRS with Advanced Laser Light Source (ALLS). 

The research team that worked to obtain these impressive results included a theoretical sub-team, concerned with simulating the experiments. In addition to Bowman and Qu, this team included Paul Houston of Cornell and Georgia Tech, former INRS post-doctoral scholar Tomoyuki Endo, and Simon Neville and Michael Schuurman from the National Research Council in Ottawa. An experimental sub-team concerned with carrying out the CEI experiments was led by Heide Ibrahim at the INRS with the support of Professor François Légaré, current director of the ALLS lab.

Heide Ibrahim

Of Heide Ibrahim, Dr. Bowman writes: “Ibrahim was the driving force behind this joint international effort, which took several years to complete. She conceived the experiment and reached out to [me] and Houston for theoretical support and advice. Without her optimism and drive, this work, which hit several road bumps, would not have been successful.”

A “Molecular Road Movie” exploring this work is available on YouTube:

Congratulations to everyone involved with this exciting work!

Note: Coverage of the results in French is available here.